Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires

This Bitter Earth
TheaterWorks Hartford
Review by Fred Sokol

Damian Thompson and Tom Holcomb
Photo by Mike Marques
This Bitter Earth, continuing at TheaterWorks Hartford through March 20th, is powerful, political and timely. Written by Harrison David Rivers, the play's sequencing can be confusing and it all feels, at times, self-conscious. That said, the production is certainly worthwhile. The appropriate title is drawn from a song Dinah Washington popularized in 1960.

Rivers's play, first produced about five years ago, focuses upon the relationship between two gay men. Neil (Tom Holcomb) is white, privileged, and actively supporting Black Lives Matter, the movement which began in 2013. His partner Jesse (Damian Thompson) is Black and largely apolitical. Jesse is a talented playwright in graduate school. While Neil vociferously demands that human beings must be liberated and that all aspects of discrimination are abhorrent, Jesse's primary concern is his evolution as a young writer.

Jesse arrived in New York City from Kansas. A portion of the production also transpires in St. Paul, Minnesota. The action shifts back and forth and is told through the mechanism of Jesse's flashbacks, but it can be difficult to discern just where we are and when. Thompson is adept in his portrayal of Jesse as a man who shields himself from a more proactive political stance since he might just be afraid of the consequences. Holcomb, deftly embodying Neil, vacillates between his character's more casual demeanor and an intensely activist self.

The actors, responding to director David Mendizábal's excellent coaching and positioning, are superb as they give and take, parry, and never relinquish hold of their characters during the course of the 95-minute presentation. The performers create a love story, and that aspect of This Bitter Earth is constantly riveting with authenticity. The playwright brings to life two men whose voices sharply differ yet they are intimately attracted and attached. Each is fiercely ardent; no surprise, then, that emotional responses fly. The moment-to-moment exchanges are crisply executed.

There's never a doubt that the trust-fund supported Neil and aspiring writing Jesse are passionate lovers. Those scenes are genuine and performed with persuasive expertise. Whether they complement one another, as people, is more problematic. Neil is quite self-righteous and Jesse calls him on this, while Neil has issues with Jesse's passive nature and the Black man's election to hone in further on his playwriting potential. The circumstances pose the question of whether or not these characters are able to adjust to form a longer-lasting unit as a couple.

Before the show begins, the audience hears Nina Simone's transportive blues singing, which enables a most suitable atmosphere for the upcoming potent work. Riw Rakkulchon's set includes a comfortable looking platform bed, books scattered here and there, art work, exposed bricks, and a few plants. As simulated snow falls beyond a rear window of the apartment, one feels the warmth within the interior.

The tension lining this impactful play compels attention. Some sequences are hyper-real and, as such, lessen credibility. This is a tight and valuable production, one that is not quite profound. The scripting, which instantly moves from one specific time to another, hinders rather than helps.

This Bitter Earth runs through March 20, 2022, at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford CT, and is streaming March 7-20. For information and tickets, call 860-527-7838 or visit